Nativity scenes celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus have a long tradition in the Czech lands, dating back to 1560, when the first such scene was introduced here by the Jesuits at their college, the Clementinum, across from the Charles Bridge in Prague. Records of the Nativity scene were lost so we will never be sure what it really looked like, but it is fairly safe to assume the scene included traditional elements including a grotto, the original manger, farm animals, and baby Jesus himself. The scene, called "Betlem" in Czech, after Bethlehem, inspired countless copies at churches and monasteries throughout the Czech lands.
Following the defeat of Czech Protestant forces in the early 17th century, the Jesuits used the Nativity scene as a re-Catholicisation motif, and eventually portable Nativity scenes came into fashion, with monks travelling across the country introducing villagers to the life of Christ. The tradition caught on, although it would be transformed: when Emperor Joseph II moved against the Church in the 18th century the Nativity scene moved from spiritual sites into peoples' homes. Banning Nativity scenes actually raised demand, and craftsmen who originally made their living creating scenes for the Church, turned to satisfying secular customers instead. Eventually, owning your own "Betlem" became an important status symbol, at first reserved only for the nobility and later on, burghers' families. Frantisek Valena a Czech specialist on Nativity scenes and the head of an association on the craft, explains how deep-rooted the tradition is.
"There are areas in the Czech Republic were Nativity scene manufacture has been a tradition for centuries, places like Trebic, Trest, Pribram, Usti nad Orlici, Kraliky. These villages had their own craftsman, for example wood-carvers. In Trest they made clock cases, and from that it was only a small step to carving figures for Nativity scenes. The tradition exists in these areas to this day. If you, for example, visit Trebic and ask who you should visit they'll send you to homes where they have amazing collections, 6 metres long and two metres high, with dozens of life-size figures. You'll be greeted at the door and offered a shot of something to warm up. That's how it is. During Advent dozens of tourists pass through to have a look and believe me it's worth it: the Nativity scenes are beautiful."
"In Trest they used tree roots fished out of the streams, twisted roots to create a romantic and dramatic Alp-like background, which they topped with moss to create the peaks. Then they set the figures all around. You find yourself in the middle of Bethlehem."
Were there any other elements that could be described, strictly speaking, as "Czech" given that Nativity scenes in Europe were historically so widespread?
"[You can find Nativity scene traditions all over Europe], notably in German-speaking countries. But they are different. In the German-speaking countries they are much more deeply rooted in clerical ritual; there, the tradition is more religious. What's special about the Czech tradition is its folk aspect. The Czech tradition features a much more personal creativity. We too have Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, but that's not all: we also have dozens of gift-bearers, craftsmen, various 'aunts' and 'uncles', and so many animals they practically spill over. Also typical for the Czech tradition, as seen in Pribram's Nativity scenes, is that at least one third - and up to half - of any scene is taken up by the backdrop of the medieval town. Then you have pastures, and only then, the little people below. I would say these aspects are very Czech."
What's more, says Frantisek Valena, Czechs often included their own additions to the story of Christ's birth:
"Here's an example: these two gift-bearers carrying a bunch of grapes actually come from the Old Testament: they're the 'scouts' who went on ahead of Moses' procession, searching for the 'Promised Land'. They'd search out the best way to go, the most hospitable area, and this bunch of grapes symbolises fertile land. That's one legend that makes it into the story of little Jesus' birth in Czech Nativity scenes. Whether in Trebic, Trest, or Usti nad Orlici, the addition of the scouts in the scenes is an attractive element."
Until the 19th century Nativity scenes were one of the main symbols of Christmas, although from the 19th century onwards they had to vie increasingly with the Christmas tree. Despite its eventually being pushed into the background, Frantisek Valena says Nativity scene building experienced a 'golden age' between World Wars I & II. Since he is a collector himself, he is often on the lookout for nativity scenes from this period or even earlier. He has come across some unique samples in his time:
"I once got a Nativity scene that I realised had been cut in half by circular saw by an old lady - her sister had the other half. It was the only way they could divide it after their father's death. But neither ever used their half, since [only one had Baby Jesus] and you couldn't very well cut him in two, so the Nativity scene just wasted away. Then, I persuaded the sister to donate the remaining part, so I could restore it. After forty years of being split in two, the scene came together again."
How does Frantisek Valena, a stage designer and artist by profession - feel about restoring historic pieces?
"A lot of people are happy just to get rid of their Nativity scenes: a lot of them are in dreadful shape and they've got them somewhere up in the attic and never take them out. For me there's nothing more rewarding than restoring historic pieces, putting together the characters' little broken heads, their snapped off legs and hands. Restoring an old Nativity scene, one has to conform to the author's original intentions and I am happy with that: under such circumstances I relax."
Prague's Municipal Museum traditionally displays Czech nativity scenes throughout the Advent and this year is no exception: Mr Valena has lent many samples from his own collection, mostly pieces from the late 19th and early 20th century. Walking through the exhibit one gets a glimpse of forgotten Christmases from so long ago, a small part of now forgotten lives, aspirations, and dreams. Baby Jesus - Jezisek - in the manger, the animals, carved or painted in folksy innocence, remain. In a small way, too, part of Czech history.